At most of the meetings Metro staff have hosted regarding the Fall 2012 service change, there was also a set of poster boards from Metro’s Transit Pathways project. Thus far, this project has flown under the radar, but the decisions that will arise from it will affect almost all riders to Southwest Seattle for many years. The purpose of this project is to decide how Metro’s West Seattle and Delridge routes will transition between 3rd Ave and the rebuilt SR-99 freeway south of downtown once the viaduct closes and the crowded, caddywompus detours and flyovers are gone. The overall timeline is shown above.
The project is still at an early stage: initial screening has identified four workable pathways that will be studied in detail to choose the best, based on a raft of criteria including likely ridership numbers; speed and reliability; neighborhood impacts and environmental justice; accessibility and intermodal connections; Seattle’s plans for transit and the waterfront; and cost of facilities and “transit classification” (more on that later). Not much is likely to happen on this project in the next couple of months, as the city’s plans for the post-viaduct waterfront are still going through a public process, and the pathways project can’t continue further until the result of that process is more definite.
Alignments and discussion after the jump.
First up, my favorite alignment: from 3rd Ave, turn right on Main St, follow that to the Alaskan Way surface street, then turn left and go south to the freeway. Inbound trips travel essentially the same alignment, but turn north on 4th Ave S, then use Prefontaine to get to 3rd. I like this, because it provides full coverage of the south end of downtown, prominently serves the pedestrian-oriented heart of Pioneer Square, and provides great connectivity to the many services that operate on Jackson St. This alignment seems pretty convincingly the best for transit, but also has the biggest set of problems.
First, it’s opposed by the neighborhood, who don’t want diesel buses driving (or laying over) on their streets; moreover, the neighborhood obviously has the ear of the city, as the city is pressuring Metro to sharply reduce bus layover in Pioneer Square after the Fall 2012 restructure. My experience, living in Belltown, is that value of copious transit service to the heart of a neighborhood outweighs its impact, but that’s just me. It’s also worth noting that Metro’s two loudest bus models — Phantom and D60HF — should be mostly retired by then, replaced by quieter hybrids.
Here’s the second problem: When Metro wants to start operating buses on a street that didn’t previously have service, or significantly increase the level of service on a street, it must seek the permission of the city in the form of a new or upgraded transit classification for that street, and this usually entails Metro promising to upgrade the pavement should the addition of service end up wrecking the street (as happened on the turnback loop when Route 36 was extended to Othello). Main St’s classification would have to be upgraded at least one level, and there’s a possibility that Metro might end up on the hook to fix parts of the street.
There are a couple more wrinkles to this proposal. Currently, parts of Main St are one-way, a traffic arrangement that is due to the defunct single-track Waterfront Streetcar that operated on Main; it would have to be converted to two-way operation, which would preclude the return of the streetcar unless this segment were moved elsewhere or rebuilt as double-track. There’s also an idea of turning Main St into a transit and pedestrian mall, with only local access traffic permitted. I have mixed feelings about this: certainly, getting cars out of the way of buses is highly desirable (essential, on game days), but unless the street has overwhelming pedestrian demand (like Pike Place during the day, or the Ave on a Friday or Saturday night), removing cars can sometimes make a street less active and appealing.
Next, basically the same thing, but on a couplet: Washington (outbound), Main (inbound). The only advantage I can see to this alignment, versus the previous, is that it would allow the reuse of the Waterfront Streetcar tracks in their current configuration. But there are disadvantages: I generally think couplets suck, as they’re confusing for occasional riders. Prominence and obviousness of the stop you should use to return whence you came are parts of the ease of use of a transit system. This pathway would require the reclassification (and potential fixing) of two streets, and presumably it would be impractical to prohibit general traffic on two Pioneer Square streets, so it would rule out a transit and pedestrian mall idea.
The third option is closest to the status quo: via a Marion/Columbia couplet to the surface Alaskan Way, then south to the freeway. This seems dramatically inferior to me: it would perpetuate many of the flaws of the current network, missing much of the south end of downtown, and require riders heading south by train or bus to backtrack quite a way. When car ferries are unloading at Colman Dock, traffic in the area is atrocious, usually gridlocked for two or three blocks east on Marion, so bus reliability would be poor, unless buses had a dedicated lane with queue jumps, which seems expensive and therefore unlikely. On the upside, it would not have any transit classification issues.
This final option strikes me as a non-starter, but it made somehow made the cut. Buses would follow the alignment of the current 21/22/56 down 4th Ave S to Atlantic St, jog over to 1st Ave S, then head south, getting on the West Seattle Bridge using the Spokane St Viaduct. This would be substantially slower (by my reckoning — again, no formal analysis has been done) than current viaduct service, and I don’t see 1st Ave S as adding enough ridership to warrant the delay to the much larger number of through-riders, although it would serve the south end of the city well. This route also would not have any transit classification issues.
I can’t help but close with an observation: this study should have happened years ago, as part of the design and budget of the highway, rather than being done as an afterthought with no funding from WSDOT. (Instead, it’s funded by a competitive PSRC grant, with a matching portion from Metro; no funding source has yet been identified for any capital work arising from the study). When building infrastructure in dense urban areas, transit needs to be the first transportation mode in the planning process, not the last, because it is the only mode that scales up well in these environments.